The Tab Meets: Dave Omand, ex-Director of the GCHQ

JOE WHITWELL speaks to David Omand about the changing role of GCHQ, the smashing of Guardian computers, and the terror that lies ‘out there’

9/11 america gchq guardian omand prism spy tempora terrorism

David Omand is former Director at the GCHQ and is now Permanent Secretary at the Home Office and Ministry of Defence and was strongly involved in the Iraq Inquiry. Having attended Corpus Christi, he now involves him in assessing the best way to respond to the terrorist threat, the post-Cold War attitude in British national security and the leaking of top secret files.


You used to go to Cambridge, what were you involved in?

A lot of work surprisingly enough – college life, the economics faculty. This was 1968, in other words les événement’ of 1968 with a sit-in at the senate house, and the economics faculty was the centre of it. After that I think the university were very careful to select students that wouldn’t cause any trouble.

And did you get the tap on your shoulder to work in intelligence when you were still at Cambridge?

Yes, I went straight from Cambridge to GCHQ.

Was that your choice?

I applied. I went to treasury briefly which was all rather boring and then GCHQ. I didn’t quite know what they did but it looked very interesting. Their entrance exam was the hardest I have ever done.

Can you remember any of the questions?

They give you a sheet of ciphers, square paper and a pencil and ask if you can make anything of it.

"Quiet! I'm practising to be a spy."

“Quiet! I’m practising to be a spy.”

Was there ever a time when they started to tell you the details, post-official secrets act, that you began to question whether this was what you wanted to do with your life?

No, because we are talking about the height of the Cold War. There was a very strong military bias in the work looking at a group of Soviet forces in Germany, for example.

So, for you there was effectively one enemy?

Yeah and the same was true all the way through to the nineties with NATO. All the defence effort was geared towards NATO. It was a very dominating sort of paradigm.

Now the enemy has diversified, how has the GCHQ changed to deal with the spread?

It’s about where you can add value to difficult decisions. My definition of intelligence is to improve decision making. If you’re a military commander in Afghanistan or you are trying to work out which of these many noisy groups is actually going to plant the next bomb, or you are a police officer worried about a homophobic attack on someone in Soho, where do you start? One of the places is with communication. The definition of national security really changed after the Cold War. It became a psychological construct about having the public having confidence that the risks are being managed sufficiently to continue with ordinary life.

You will never eliminate the risk of terrorism. But you want to get to a stage where everything looks pretty stable, that’s the kind of goal.

If the public saw the sort of things that you saw, would they be comfortable getting on the underground?

…yes, the hardest part of all of this is managing public knowledge and expectations because if they saw some of the stuff out there, they’d be terrified because there are groups out there planning mayhem. They might be very amateurish and professionals might say that they won’t get anywhere so you’ve got to be careful not to exaggerate. The whole objective of national security is normality. Normality is the key word.

This is very different from the American concept of security which is to eliminate threats. As far as the US since 9/11 is concerned eliminating threats is the objective so they will take very extreme measures to do that. The British approach is about managing risk.

Of these methods that America is using, do you support them all?

I don’t support drone strikes outside the conflict zone. The British army uses drones for surveillance and to protect their own troops in conflict zones. Blowing up people in a jeep travelling in the Yemen desert is targeted killing and no British minister is going to sign off on that.

Is the British press too free?

No. I believe in a free press. I don’t believe in prosecuting the Guardian, though they have made some crass mistakes. They said they were redacting all the sensitive information when actually they have let slip some things that they shouldn’t have.

Do you believe in their right to take that information in the first place?

Not necessarily. I believe in their right if the info is available.

So for you, it is theft?

Yes, absolutely.

And the government was justified in smashing up the files?

Don’t misunderstand why the government did what they did. The government went to The Guardian and said do you realise, you are now the target of every intelligence organisation on the planet. We don’t think you can protect this stuff from people trying to get to it. The Guardian agreed to this stuff being destroyed. The Guardian then broke their agreement with the government to talk about it. They then misrepresented what had been agreed and they portrayed the state interfering with the press and it wasn’t.

The computer smashing – a re-enactment

Was it an agreement, or was it an arm up the back agreement?

I think they clearly understood that holding this stash of stolen material was a very dangerous situation and that they could not guarantee that people couldn’t get at it. You can imagine that every intelligence agency would see buried in this material all sorts of very interesting stuff.

The way I analyse it, I don’t fuss about the exposure of Prism or Tempora. If it had been up to me, which it wasn’t, I would have made a virtue of that to reassure the public that we can find the communications of terrorists and criminals. We have got this capability.

Then there are the details that the Guardian inadvertently let slip without realising quite how serious they were.

Such as?

Well I’m not going to tell you but there is a very good example in the Washington Post which is a GCHQ discovery where people who want to swap indecent photos of children will sign up to Tor. What GCHQ discovered is that you can relate these IP addresses back to the computer. If I were a serious criminal who uses Tor, I would start to worry about that. So that kind of thing is not necessary to make the case about security and privacy. You don’t need to release that kind of detail.